Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review: Felipe Fernández-Armesto's "Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States" - Notes for a Lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

Book Review: 'Our America,' by Felipe Fernández-Armesto: Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. have arrived at different times and with diverse perceptions of where they fit into the national narrative by JANET NAPOLITANO, Wall StreetJournal
Feb. 12, 2014 6:49 p.m. ET

Felipe Fernández-Armesto's "Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States" presents a comprehensive overview of the Hispanic presence in what became the United States, from Columbus's landing in 1492 to today's rapidly changing American society, where Hispanics make up 17% of the population and are projected to reach 30% by midcentury.
In exploring this 500-year history, the author raises profound questions: Why is the teaching of U.S. history so focused on the expansion of the country from east to west, to the exclusion of the movements from south to north? Is there a single, unified "Hispanic America," or is this merely a phrase meant to capture a broad variety of peoples with different histories and cultures unified only by derivation from Spanish-speaking countries? And, most immediately, what deeper forces are behind the political resistance to immigration reform today, given that, aside from Native Americans, all of us trace our lineage back to immigrants?
Mr. Fernández-Armesto, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, is strongest when he writes as a historian rather than as a philosopher or political critic. In this volume, one finds Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, who sought the Fountain of Youth but encountered the Gulf Stream instead. The author recounts the travails of missionaries looking for converts and of conquistadors like Hernando de Soto, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado searching for trade routes and cities of gold. On July 4, 1598—an alternative Fourth of July, if you will— Juan de Oñate founded San Juan de los Caballeros, the first permanent European settlement in the central lands of North America.
Migration followed but never in the numbers or with the financial or military support from Spain that one would expect. Mr. Fernández-Armesto argues that the settlement of North America was a "loss leader" for the Spanish monarchy. The terrain, resources and available labor were more advantageous in the lands to the south, and that is where its efforts were concentrated. The early Spanish settlements were plagued by disease, native uprisings—the Pueblos in New Mexico, the Comanches in Texas—and resource shortages.

Our America

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto
(Norton, 402 pages, $27.95)
The Hispanic narrative changed as 19th-century America began its rapid expansion from east to west. Texas, described in relation to Mexico as akin to the relationship of Siberia to Russia, provides a particularly interesting example. Proslavery cotton growers moved there; Mexico remained anti-slavery; the settlers wanted their own republic. The Battle of San Jacinto and then the Mexican-American War ensued. Texas joined the Union in 1845. As John Quincy Adams wrote, this historic event was tainted with two deadly crimes, "the leprous contamination of slavery, and robbery of Mexico."
The south-to-north migration, mostly for economic reasons, continued apace. Immigrant wages were low and mistreatment was common: The book doesn't ignore such shameful incidents as the Great Orphan Abduction of 1904, during which Anglo vigilantes kidnapped 40 Irish orphans from Catholic nuns to prevent the children from being placed with Mexican families. Immigration into the U.S. was easier during labor shortages, as occurred during World Wars I and II, and tightened when times were hard. So, too, goes the course of empire.
As Mr. Fernández-Armesto's history demonstrates, these Hispanic immigrants arrived at different times and with different perceptions of where they fit into the national narrative. In New Mexico, where I grew up, many called themselves Spanish instead of Mexican-American to indicate having arrived under the original land grants as opposed to being of Mexican extraction; Cubans in Florida generally have different politics from Puerto Ricans in New York City.
The book sometimes glosses over these differences. It also omits any discussion of the drug wars that for too long have dominated bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Mexico and the plague of illegal drugs that has infected our communities. As the attorney general and governor of Arizona and as a U.S. attorney, I saw firsthand the impact of the drug cartels and their growing power along the border.
Surprisingly, "Our America" also overlooks significant achievements by Hispanic Americans. Barely any mention is made of notable personalities after César Chavez. Governors, legislators, mayors, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, entertainers, intellectuals, artists and scientists are all making their mark today. You won't find many of them in "Our America."
Nor will you find any mention of the waves of Hispanic young people entering our colleges and universities. I now serve as the president of the University of California, the nation's largest public research university. In fall 2013, 27% of our undergraduates self-identified as Hispanic or Latino. Indeed, Hispanic students comprise the largest group of applicants to the university, and that number continues to grow.
Mr. Fernández-Armesto can't help showing his disdain for current U.S. immigration policy, which he says is often driven by "fear of Hispanics" and "cultural defensiveness." These forces have been a frustration for those, like me, who have been toiling in this arena. Yet he should shy away from bald assertions about deportation numbers and enforcement practices. As any historian knows, nothing is ever that simple. We are at an inflection point where politics and policy are coming together. As diverse as Hispanic America is, it speaks with a unified voice in opposing the anti-immigrant rhetoric that repeatedly surfaces in our public discourse. The Hispanic voice will be most effective at resolving immigration inequities when it is heard at the ballot box and in the halls of Congress.
Whatever its faults, "Our America" offers a valuable contribution to those seeking a broader understanding of U.S. history. Students and politicians alike could benefit from the scholarship of Mr. Fernández-Armesto. We owe him a debt of gratitude for deepening our comprehension of Hispanics in the U.S.—how they came to be here and how their shared narrative has shaped our nation.
Ms. Napolitano, a former U.S. secretary of homeland security and governor of Arizona, is president of the University of California.

No comments: