Latinos are new immigrants to the United States? Really? So why can so many of us trace our family roots back hundreds of years in the USA?
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – A perplexing phrase stubbornly continues to pop up as fact in newspaper and magazine news stories, in presidential speeches, in online content, and in my son’s school lessons: Latinos are the “newest wave of immigrants” to arrive in the United States.
Journalists, politicians, educators, provocateurs and others typically parrot these dubious words within the context of the explosive immigration debate. Anytime I read them, I can’t help closing my eyes and shaking my head. New wave of immigrants? Really?
When politicians (including, disappointingly, President Obama) and others contend that Latinos/Hispanics are recent arrivals, I am appalled at our nation’s collective ignorance and apparent amnesia about U.S. history and the history of the Americas. Let’s be honest. most Latino/Hispanic Americans did not matriculate through Ellis Island because there was no Ellis Island when our American Indian and Spanish ancestors arrived in North America. The truth is, Latinos/Hispanics do not make up the “latest wave” of immigrants to the United States. We have been in North, Central and South America all along.
Why, in 2011, are so many Americans surprised by the existence of Latinos/Hispanics in this country? I’ve never been to Louisiana, but I know of its Cajun culture. I know about the huge Italian, Jewish and Polish populations in New York and Chicago, and the Irish in Boston. I know about the issei and nisei Japanese-Americans in San Francisco, the Norwegians in Minnesota, the Germans and Amish of Pennsylvania, the Appalachians in the South, and the African American diaspora across the country. Why don’t more Americans know about the long history of Mexican Americans/Hispanos in the West and Southwest, the Cubans in Florida and the Puerto Ricans along the Eastern Seaboard?
Here’s why longevity in the United States counts. Over the past two centuries, racial/ethnic identity in our country has evolved into a sort of American royalty, and where we fall in that hierarchy determines our perceived worth. The depth of our family roots has become a trump card for those who who would lord the validity of their “Americanness” over newcomers. The longer your family history in the Americas, the more “royal” you are. Just ask the Mayflower descendants and the Daughters of the American Revolution. It is uncertain where these “nativists” would place American Indians in this equation. From experience, I know most New Englanders have not studied the Spanish colonial period of our continent in depth, and are not aware that many of us come from families whose histories in the continental United States predate the Pilgrims, the Salem witch burnings and the Revolutionary War.
Latinos/Hispanics do not make up the “latest wave” of immigrants to the United States. We have been in North, Central and South America all along. We were here when English colonists founded Jamestown, and when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. We were here during the American Indian Wars, the Louisiana Purchase, and during the nation’s westward expansion. We were here when the Revolutionary, Civil, Spanish-American, two world wars, Korean, Vietnam, Gulf and Iraq wars raged – and fought in all of them, yes, all of them. We were here during the industrial revolution, and died in the Ludlow Massacre as striking coal miners rose up to demand better wages and safer work conditions. We were here when latter waves of European immigrants matriculated through Ellis Island, and we welcomed them into our ancestral homeland. We were here during the Rock ‘n’ Roll 1950s and ’60s, and infused American pop culture with songs like “Oh, Donna” and “La Bamba.” We danced through the British Invasion and the Motown Sound, and worshipped José Feliciano and Santana. While watching the Ed Sullivan Show, we picked our favorite Beatle, and laughed at Topo Gigio, the Muppets and the absurdity of José Jimenez. We were here during the first moon landing, the Cold War and the explosive civil rights era. We wailed and stumbled to console each other following the violent deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., and one of us held Bobby’s head as he died on that Los Angeles hotel floor. We picked produce and marched through the Great American Bread Basket alongside César Chávez, and died on lush Vietnamese fields and in stark U.S. car bombings. We enrolled in U.S. universities to make our voices heard, and founded student newspapers. We were here during the economic recession of the 1970s, and, along with everyone else, endured long lines at the pumps, widespread unemployment, platform shoes and disco music. We grooved to “Samba Pa Ti,” “Black Magic Woman” and “Suavecito.” We were here when the pirates of Silicon Valley staked their fortunes in suburban garages. We were here during the Reagan era of the 1980s, and waited for trickle-down economics to help the American worker. We were here during the tech boom and bust of the 1990s and the New Millennium scare in 2000. We are here now, part of the Global Village and the marketplace of ideas on the Information Superhighway, and are moving through cyberspace and social media. When people call Latinos the “new wave of immigrants,” they ignore facts, and seem to want to erase an entire group of Americans from our nation’s history.
Sadly, many of us live in a narrow, encapsulated pop culture that convinces us that U.S. history goes something like this: The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock; English-speaking colonists defeated their British cousins; the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution; non-Hispanic pioneers fulfilled Manifest Destiny; cowboys and Indians fought; the North fought the South over slavery; cowboys fought Mexicans; everyone else arrived on ships at Ellis Island; the United States became a world power; and now Latin Americans are “invading” our shores by the droves. Wait a minute: Didn’t a whole lot of exploring and “conquering” by the gold-seeking, seafaring Spanish and Portuguese, and the historically competitive British and French happen across the entire Americas before the Founding Fathers picked up their mighty pens? I’m pretty sure the Dutch, Scottish and Irish were involved somewhere in there, too, as were African slaves, Jews fleeing the Inquisition and Chinese laborers who helped build the transcontinental railway. Let’s not forget the pirates of all ethnic stripes, and the resourceful Vikings, who apparently landed in the New World centuries earlier, but didn’t stick around long enough to lay any claims. Then there were the descendants of all of the early arrivals, who arose to create what Latin Americans affectionately call “the cosmic race,” the melding of the earth’s people to create a new demographic: the homegrown American. Included in that ebullient mix are the mestizo descendants of Spanish explorers and Native Americans, who make up the single largest indigenous population in the Americas.
Case in point: My family. At least six or seven generations of my family, on both sides, have lived in Colorado alone. On paper, my mother’s family has lived in the continental United States since the early 1700s, dating back to the New Mexico arrival of Zacatecas-born Spanish colonist Francisco Montes Vigil. If you count our American Indian bloodlines, my mestizo (ethnically mixed) family has lived in North America for millennia. We are not recent immigrants. If I had a dollar for every time a non-Hispanic American asked me, “What part of Mexico is your family from?” I’d be a very wealthy woman. Generations of my family have lived, loved, worked, served and died under the U.S. flag can stake the same claim.
Need evidence that Hispanics have lived in the United States as long if not longer than everyone else? Look no further than the names of many U.S. states: California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Montaña. Our cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Fe, San Antonio, Amarillo, Los Alamos, Las Vegas and Las Animas. Our towns: Alta, Pueblo, Trinidad, Limon, Buena Vista, Salida, El Cajón and Durango. Our mountains: Sangre de Cristos, San Juans, Sierra Nevada, San Gabriels. Our rivers: Colorado, Río de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (Purgatory), Río Grande, Agua Dulce, Tornillo and Maravillas. There are many more examples across the West and Southwest. Still not convinced? Visit the historic missions established by Spanish Jesuits in California starting in 1769; travel across New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, California, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah to visit the many Latino/Hispanic communities that have been around for generations; and, finally, look at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the Spanish names of troops who gave their lives for this nation.
Yes, we have been here – in the Americas, from Canada to Patagonia – all along. We are still here, and, carajo, why that surprises so many is just baffling.
Deborah Méndez-Wilson (née Quintana-Vigil) is a fifth-generation Coloradan whose mestizo family roots in the United States date back to the early 1700s in Spanish colonial New Mexico. A graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Méndez-Wilson spent nearly 20 years working in professional journalism for news organizations such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and publications such as Wireless Week, Colorado Outdoors and the now-defunct Daily Journal of Caracas, Venezuela. She also has worked as an ESL teacher and a public relations professional in state government, health care and higher education. She lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo., with her husband and son, and also shares her life with her adult daughter and grandson.