Monday, March 30
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Spain in the USA | History today


Painful great war spectacle, Mexican war, siege of Vera Cruz. New York: Sackett & Wilhelm's Litho. Co., c1890. Library of Congress.

In 1565, half a century before the Pilgrim Fathers, the Spaniards began the first European settlement in what is now the United States. Despite Hispanic roots going back nearly half a millennium, descendants of newer immigrants have ignored this basic truth and tried to exclude it from American history.

Carrie Gibsons El Norte is an important reminder of the mainstream history of the "Waspish" in the United States, in which English pioneers take precedence over their Spanish counterparts. As Gibson demonstrates, a broader story would also highlight that Hispanics in the United States have not always been marginalized. They were not only pioneers but also oppressors, the settlement of which disrupted the existing indigenous order.

After detailed Spanish colonial development in the south and west of the United States, including the French cession of Louisiana in 1762, El Norte picks up speed when we reach Texas in the 1820s – then part of a Mexico that is now independent of Spain. Texas was closely monitored by the United States and thousands of Anglos squatted in the region. Although some Mexicans sought Texas to join the United States, the drive to secession came from American statesmen who dreamed of founding another slave state. In 1836, 12 years after the Texas ban on trade, the Anglo settlers declared independence from Mexico. They gained independence militarily and in 1845 Texas was accepted into the union as a slave state.

The coverage of the United States' victory at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 shows how many in the United States are committed to the racial hierarchy: "Anglo-Saxon blood maintains its superiority in the field as in the pursuit of a peaceful life," emphasizes The Pennsylvanian, And when it came to the complete annexation of Mexico, the racist undertones of this project were hit by the racist undertones of its political opponents. "I'm protesting the inclusion of such a people," argued John C. Calhoun. "We are the White Man's government." The United States intervened again across the border a year after Texas joined. The Mexican-American War (1846-48), which Ulysses S. Grant described as "one of the most unfair that a stronger nation has ever waged against a weaker nation," cost Mexico more than half of its territory. More than 50 years later, the formerly Mexican areas of Arizona and New Mexico still applied to the United States government for state authority.

Neither bravery nor sacrifice brought inclusion. Hispanic blood was spilled on both sides of the civil war – the conflict that struck the nation. Until the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Americans from Mexico volunteered in World War II to fight for a society that was lukewarm about their race, ethnicity, and religion.

Perhaps Gibson's most important point comes in the introduction. Hispanics, she recalls, are a very diverse bunch. Despite having a common language, they have roots in over 20 Spanish-speaking countries, in many other cultures and a racist mix of whites, mestizos, mulattos, blacks, indigenous people and Asians. Prejudices against Hispanics stem from stereotypes of a group that opposes homogenization.

Gibson's book is a scientific and compelling case for reevaluating Hispanic role in U.S. history. A particular president with German and Scottish roots is only mentioned in the last chapter. The country he runs is proud of his immigrant past, but rarely tells it fully. El Norte is a worthy story of an overlooked population.

El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten History of Hispanic North America
Carrie Gibson
Atlantic 576pp £ 20

Daniel Rey is the author of "Checkmate or Top Trumps: Cuba's geopolitical game of the century" and second at Bodley Head & Financial Times Essay Prize.

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