Last week began yet another month set aside for celebrating the history of victims of “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” slavery, colonialism, and imperialism, to name a few of the historic crimes perpetrated by “whites.” What started as a correction of historical writing vitiated by partiality and prejudice, today has degenerated into rank politicization that provides leverage to some political factions––mostly progressive Democrat clients–– at the cost of historical truth.
The first problem with “Hispanic Heritage Month” is the name. The only meaningful definition of that imprecise word “Hispanic” is something like “Hispanophone,” those who speak Spanish. Such a category includes nearly half a billion people comprising a vast diversity of ethnicities, nations, religions, customs, cultures, mores, cuisines, folkways, and histories. So which of those thousands and thousands of “heritages” will we be celebrating all month?
We can be sure that the lion’s share of these “heritages” will be Mexican. There’s a good reason for that: until recently, most of the legal or illegal immigrants have come from Mexico. The American Southwest, after all, was conquered and settled by Spaniards, and became part of Mexico after the 1821 revolution. This history, including the Mexican War of 1846-48 which ended with Mexico ceding the Southwest to the U.S., is part of American history, and should be taught as such, warts and all.
But in fact, what is generally taught from grade school to university is a politicized history that serves the leftist, Howard Zinn melodrama of racist “white” Euro-American invaders and colonizers who destroyed the indigenous peoples and their idyllic cultures in order to monetize their stolen lands with oppressive capitalists and their Christian flunkeys.
Every Columbus Day, for example, we are regaled with such simplistic, often cartoonish narratives that leave out all the complexities and nuances of real history. Typical of this ahistorical mentality is the “Wanted Poster” promulgated in 1992 by a South American indigenous organization, which lists Columbus’s crimes as “grand theft, genocide, racism, initiating the destruction of a culture, rape, torture, and instigating the big lie.”
Nor was this a fringe opinion. Kirkpatrick Sale’s bestseller of the same year, The Conquest of Paradise, legitimized these question-begging epithets with slanted interpretations of selected evidence. Yet many of these tendentious revisions of history have made it into textbooks and curricula, especially in various “studies” programs in universities.
The politically correct or “woke” history of Mexico and its encounters with the U.S. exhibits the same dubious historical claims, cherry-picked evidence, and lack of complexity, let alone actual facts. Starting in the Sixties, one controversial myth-history was popularized by the student activist group MEChA. Their claim is that the whole Southwest was once “Aztlán,” the homeland of “La Raza,” the “bronze” race, who are “the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán from whence came our forefathers,” as the “Plan of Aztlán” puts it.
This “homeland” was lost to the “brutal ‘gringo’ invasion,” and the goal of the “Plan” is the “reconquest” of that lost homeland. Like most ethnic myth-histories such as “systemic racism” and its corollary “white fragility,” the racist drift of all this is obvious in the motto of MEChA: “For the Race everything, outside the Race, nothing,” a creepy reprise of Mussolini’s “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Today the fascist motto has been dropped, along with some of the more militant beliefs, as has the moniker “Chicano,” which like “Latinx” never caught on with ordinary Mexican-Americans. The organization also has backed off some of the more blatantly illiberal identity politics, seeking a wider influence that can attract more than just ethnic Mexican students, since migrants from Latin and Central America have increased substantially. But the “stolen land” trope continues, even if the more lurid fantasies are down-played.
The “history,” however, remains a political myth and a curricular staple. The notion that Mexican immigrants are merely returning to their ancestral homeland is useful for gaming the politics of immigration and policies like virtual open borders and lax vetting protocols. Hence the popular slogan, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
Yet this narrative of a homeland ravished by gringo invaders conceals other historical falsehoods in addition to the fantasy of Aztlán. The fact is, the vast majority of Mexicans who immigrated to the Southwest, especially California, did so after it became part of the United States. Before then, the only Mexicans who ended up in the province of Alta California were retired soldiers, criminals, orphans, and the political cronies of the ruling elite, who acquired 26,000,000 acres of land on which most of them raised cattle on haciendas worked by indigenous peons.
Indeed, many of the roughly 15,000 inhabitants before the Gold Rush weren’t Mexican at all, but American and British merchants who married into grandee Californio families and traded the hides and tallow produced by vast herds of cattle. So many came from New England that these immigrants were call bostoños. With the grandees they formed a quasi-aristocracy who chafed under the Mexican central government’s high-handed neglect. Many before the Mexican War with the U.S. were scheming to become part of the States or some other great power like Britain or Russia.
Most important, the Mexican government’s neglect and failure to make any effort to develop the region, and the incessant political conflicts over who should rule Alta California helped to create a people whose identity was distinct from Mexicans’, and so instead they called themselves Californios. Visitors consistently remarked on their anachronistic dress, opulent lifestyle, and distinct appearance so different from Mexicans.
But today, no one is interested in real history, which is much more complex than the racialist melodrama of oppression and grievance. As with most of the “identities” celebrated on designated months, the mythic history of unjust oppression burdens the majority culture with the responsibility to adapt to and accommodate the cultures of those it has victimized.
Hence as we have seen over the last three decades, the dominant culture must expiate its historical crimes with various sorts of reparation and entitlements: amnesties for illegal aliens, nullification of federal immigration laws by “sanctuary cities,” and bestowing on non-citizens drivers licenses, voting rights, food stamps, and free room and board and health care.
Even the technical term from international law, “illegal alien,” must be discarded, since these folks from Mexico are not “aliens,” but rather some sort of refugee simply reclaiming what was once theirs by right, a land whose authentic culture was violently displaced and distorted by the gringo occupiers.
This virtual legalization of illegal aliens, moreover, is the realization of what the “Plan of Aztlán” called “Restitution for past economic slavery, political exploitation, ethnic and cultural psychological destruction and denial of civil and human rights.” Thus a “reconquest” impossible by force will be achieved through demography and the abandonment of the old model of assimilation, in an attempt to make the U.S. more like the cultures illegal aliens risk their lives to flee.
The point is not that the West has not committed violence and injustice against other peoples. But those crimes are universal to a flawed human nature and its destructive impulses, and the dynamic culture of the West made them more efficient at such depredations. But what’s unique is the Western self-consciousness and self-criticism that have led to recognizing that such inhumanity like slavery is a crime to be fought against and eliminated. This cultural habit is what created a country like the United States, to which millions of people from around the globe risk their lives to be part of.
Much of what goes on during these commemorative months is unexceptional. No one objects to the descendants of immigrants celebrating and acknowledging their ancestors’ customs, holidays, and cuisines. But identity-politics still determines which ethnicities get their yearly month of celebration. Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Armenians, and many others rarely get the same national attention. Only those identities that “woke” ideology defines by dubious “histories” of “oppression” by “white supremacy” and “systemic racism” are politically useful enough to make the cut.
This tribalism doesn’t bode well for our country, which depends on an “unum”––political freedom and equality, and unalienable rights possessed by individuals, not favored groups–– that can weld so many “pluribus” into a nation. Using bad history to divide and pit ethnicities against each other compromises that common ground, and dangerously undermines the oikophilia that makes us willing to fight and die in its defense.