Honor the historians…
“The study of history is the beginning of political wisdom.” Jean Bodin, French political philosopher
The observation “What’s past is prologue,” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” is an eloquent summary of life. Indeed, the past sets the context for the present and the future. Simply put, if you don’t know your past it’s hard to understand your present and to chart your future.
Algerian psychiatrist Franz Fanon observed that “de-historizing” an oppressed group is a tactic used by oppressors. The dominant group first seeks to destroy the language – the vehicle by which culture and history are passed on generation to generation – of the oppressed group. In essence, this seeks to eradicate the group’s culture and history. This was the intent of the “No Spanish Allowed” rules in schools back in the day, when we were seen as “foreigners” and physically beaten for uttering any Spanish words on school grounds.
And that is why we should honor the historians amongst us. They are the ones who – after chasing down and analyzing old memos and letters, news clippings, photos, cassette tapes, transcripts of meetings, speeches, etc., and conducting interviews – report historical events to us. Historians also “rescue,” as it were, issues and phenomena that were buried – through negligence, indifference, or purposeful intent – in the dustbins of history and bring them to light. [More on this below.]
Anthropologist Octavio Ignacio Romano-V. sounded the tocsin about this attempt to “de-historize” us in his 1968 seminal essay “The Anthropology and Sociology of the Mexican-Americans: The Distortion of Mexican-American History.” Romano forcefully tore into white social scientists for “explaining” the Mexican American community in stereotypical terms and portraying us as a quaint mass of passive creatures who merely absorbed history rather than generated it. Countering the social scientists, Romano gave example after example, going back to the late 1800s, of Mexican Americans organizing strikes and taking legal or other actions to improve their position – in other words, generating history.
Lots of “hidden history”…
Indeed, there is much “hidden history,” issues and events of great importance to and in our community that for all intents and purposes were buried but that contemporary historians have recovered and brought to light. Here are three examples.
* Mexican lynchings. F. Arturo Rosales, in his books “Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” and “Pobre Raza!: Violence, Justice and Mobilization Among Mexico Lindo Immigrants,” describes lynchings of Mexicanos in Arizona.
In “The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands,” Nicholas Villanueva, Jr. details the lynching of people of Mexican descent, including teenage boys, in Texas in the early 1900s under the guise of enforcing “citizenship and sovereignty.” Although per the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, U.S. citizenship was conferred on Mexican Americans, Anglo immigrants to Texas viewed Mexicans as intruders who were not deserving of equal rights. Many of these lynchings were facilitated by law enforcement and judicial officials.
In a 2018 keynote address she gave at Northeastern University, Brown University Assistant Professor Mónica Martínez discussed her work recovering “lost histories” of racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border in the early twentieth century. Martínez noted that from 1842 to 1928, there were over 200 lynchings and other forms of racialized violence committed by civilians and law enforcement officials along the Texas-Mexico border.
* The Great Deportation. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the U.S., in a wave of blatantly unconstitutional raids known as the “Mexican repatriation,” deported as many as 1.8 million people of Mexican descent, a large majority of whom were U.S. citizens. On the eve of the Great Depression there was tremendous pressure to deal with increasing unemployment and devise a plan to sustain the burdened social safety net. Then-President Hoover decided to go after people perceived to be “outsiders” who were taking Americans’ jobs – people who looked Mexican or had a Mexican-sounding name.
Elena Herrada is one of the founders of the oral history project, “Los Repatriados: Exiles from the Promised Land.” Her grandparents lived in a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood in Detroit, which was targeted in one of the raids. The family was “de-patriated” to Mexico and was not reunified until two years later.
In his book, “A Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s,” Francisco Balderrama explains that the government’s attitude was that there was no difference between a Mexican living in the U.S. and a Mexican American born and bred here. As a result, as many as sixty percent of those sent “home” to Mexico were U.S. citizens, including American-born children of Mexican descent who had never before traveled south of the border.
* The Arizona Orphan Abduction. This issue centers around a 1904 Supreme Court decision regarding the welfare of orphan children (mostly of Irish descent) and events in Morenci, Arizona in which forty orphans were forcibly abducted so that they wouldn’t be placed with Mexican American families. In the mid-1860s, U.S. policy sought to have urban orphans adopted by rural families or shipped to some location in the sparsely populated American West. The Catholic Sisters of Charity arranged for forty children to be adopted by Catholic Mexican American families in Morenci, Arizona. The white locals were outraged and decided to not allow the children to be adopted by Mexican American families.
At gunpoint, the sheriff demanded that the priest and nuns turn over the orphans. A mob threatened to hang the priest. Many of the children had already been placed in Mexican American homes, so the sheriff and a mob, wielding guns and whips, went from house to house to collect the orphans. The Catholic Church sued, and the case eventually was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the court sided with the mob, ruling that placing white children with Mexican American families was a form of child abuse. New York University historian Linda Gordon details this issue in her book “The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction.”
It ain’t all in the past, folks…
Attempts to hide and even criminalize our history is not all in the distant past. In 2007, filmmaker Ken Burns produced a World War II documentary, aired by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Burns omitted completely any mention of the participation of Mexican Americans in WW II. Yet, over 750,000 Mexican Americans served in World War II, earning more Congressional Medals of Honor and other decorations in proportion to their numbers than any other U.S. ethnic group.
Burns’ omission of Mexican Americans prompted protests by a group named “Defend the Honor,” which represented dozens of organizations and thousands of individuals, a great majority of whom were veterans. Defend the Honor was co-chaired by scholar-activist Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, who founded the Voces Oral History Project at the University of Texas, Austin. VOCES collects and archives oral histories of Latino veterans.
Defend the Honor carried out an intense campaign of letter-writing, petitions, protests, and threats of boycotting Burns’ film as well as PBS. As a result, Burns incorporated Latino stories into the 14-hour, seven-part documentary.
In 2010 Arizona legislators enacted legislation that targeted the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson. The legislation outlawed courses “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” or that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” or that “promote the overthrow of the United States government.” None of those descriptors applied to the MAS program.
The Tucson Unified School District dismantled the MAS program and banned the books used by the MAS teachers. Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was also banned because it raises the issues of morality, fairness, and oppression. Discussing these topics, and specifically oppression, in the context of Mexican Americans was “illegal” according to the state law and the school district. Therefore, MAS teachers were banned from teaching “The Tempest.”
The Mexican American-Chicano community and their allies fought the MAS and book bans fiercely. [My family and I were intimately involved in this resistance.] In 2017, a federal judge ruled that the state violated the constitutional rights of Mexican American students by eliminating the MAS program, saying officials “were motivated by racial animus” and were pushing “discriminatory ends in order to make political gains.”
I end as I started: “What’s past is prologue.” Our history is a road map, a blueprint, as it were, that can help us navigate the present and chart the future. We need to study it. Cherish it. Respect it. Learn from it. And we need to thank the historians who bring it to us. c/s