For those of us with Spanish Mexican-descent origins in Texas and the Southwest, the title above is a statement of fact.

The reason? The entire U.S. Southwest was once part of Mexico’s northern territories.

When the U.S. took the land after the 1846-48 U.S.-Mexico War, our Mexicana/Mexicano ancestors were living in the conquered territory’s towns and self-sustaining rancho communities.

A 16th Century map of Mexico.

That’s why: (a) we (their descendants) continue to preserve our long heritage “on this side of the U.S.-Mexico border” — remaining “Mexican” strictly in a cultural sense; (b) is exactly why the present-day U.S. Mexico border is in the middle of “Old Mexico”; (c) it’s the reason why most everything historically old in Texas and the Southwest is named in Spanish; and (d) our Mexican-Native American character gives the Southwest its world-renowned spirit.

Yet, today our community is under attack due to the hostile immigration debate. That’s because when a certain segment of U.S. mainstream society hears the word “Mexican”, they automatically assume that it only refers to citizens of Mexico; ignoring that over 36 million U.S. citizens use the term as a heritage (historical) identifier, and not political allegiance. The difference between those two perceptions is discussed below, but first some background.

When fellow Texan President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, he explained the historic moment’s meaning: “Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom… have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders… All men are created equal, yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights because of the color of their skin. The reasons are deeply imbedded in history but it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, principles of our freedom, and Morality forbid it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it. … Let us close the springs of racial poison.  Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole.”

While the epic legislation was mostly received with jubilation, not everyone was willing to equally extend “liberty and justice for all”. Some southern states’ legislators, once LBJ’s political allies, weren’t happy. Not surprisingly, they quit the president’s party in protest.

To put President Johnson’s legislation in perspective, he extended equality to members of racial/ethnic minority groups in all facets of life; civil/voting/housing/health/employment/education, etc. If you are female, in 1964 and 1968, President Johnson signed bills protecting women’s rights in the workplace (hiring, promotion, and equal pay) that are still valid today.

The racism didn’t go away. It became dormant until recently; revived by today’s anti-immigrant hysteria. Blatantly, so-called white nativist hatred toward immigrants has spilled over to include African-descent and Hispanic U.S. citizens. That is, anyone perceived as “foreign” (different) than mainstream white society. (Incidentally, the label white nativists is a contradictory term, since if they’re “white”, their roots are immigrant Anglo-Saxon and/or of Nordic descent from Europe, not America.)

The result? A modern-day battle for equality is now upon us. Unimaginable just a few years ago, no one ever expected minorities to again worry about losing their civil rights, but here we are.

Thus, in reviewing the following points, think about the “racial poison” that President Lyndon B. Johnson warned us about in 1964.

  • African-descent citizens are more likely to disproportionately experience violence and death while in police custody. Their daily lives and voting rights are constantly threatened by intolerance.
  • Muslim men, women, and children are likewise victims of hate.
  • Sikh men, mistakenly thought by some white U.S. citizens as being from the Middle East, have been attacked for wearing religious turbans.
  • Equally alarming, anti-Semitism incidents have steadily climbed for the last few years. Reaching a tragic peak, eleven Jewish worshippers were recently murdered while praying at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue.
  • For the record, Native Americans have faced discrimination longer than any other group in the U.S. Still, bigotry continues. For example, Native Americans in North Dakota were targeted with absurd state-directed voter ID laws to discourage them from voting during the recent mid-term elections.

Closer to home (and the reason for this article), not since 1848, have Spanish Mexican-descent people of the Southwest found it more difficult to prove valid U.S. citizenship, even though they are descendants of the founders of Texas and Southwest.

As the title of this article implies, our ancestors were Mexicanas/Mexicanos first. What does that mean and why does it matter?

The answer is that early pioneers arriving in Mexico’s most northeastern province of Texas came from population centers (Coahuila, Nuevo León, Nuevo Santander, etc.). As such, “Mexicanas/ Mexicanos” was the only national identity used for many years in Texas, even before the term “Tejana/Tejano” first appeared in the 1820s.

Incidentally, how old is the word Mexicana/Mexicano? According to historian Hugh Thomas, it was already being used in Mexica pictograph documents to describe themselves before the 1519 Spanish arrival. That explains the reason why the most respected mapmakers in early 1500s Europe adopted the name “America Mexicana,” whose northwestern border stretched to Canada.

Regrettably, the U.S. antagonistic policy toward Mexico was crafted almost immediately after the 1846-48 war. While some supporters in the U.S. defended Mexico’s sovereignty, the U.S. won the war and the Republic of Mexico lost over half of its sovereign land.

Politically, after the war, people living south of the current U.S.-Mexico border (and west of the Rio Grande in Texas) remained Mexican citizens. Conversely, their close-knit family members living on the land the U.S. had just taken from Mexico, became “estadounidenses” (United States citizens). Sadly for them, their reception wasn’t friendly. That’s because the country’s prevailing anti-Mexican/Native American mood treated them as strangers in their own land.

It wasn’t always that way. Three examples follow:

(1) President George Washington openly thanked Spanish General Bernardo de Gálvez and Mexican-born troops who helped the U.S. win its War of Independence (1775-1783);

(2) In 1811 at the White House, President Madison welcomed my ancestor José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara (later, first president of independent Texas), as a fellow American; and hailed Mexico as a sister American republic and trading partner.

(3) Some readers may be surprised to learn that Stephen F. Austin willingly sought to become a Mexicano. The record shows that he and his 300 immigrant families eagerly accepted becoming Mexicanas and Mexicanos in 1822 to begin new lives in Mexico.

Finally, a final reminder. If you are of Spanish Mexican-descent, originate in the Southwest, and assume that you and/or your family aren’t affected by the revived 1960s-style bigotry, think again. You are most definitely a target due to your name, the way you look, and/or speak. However, you don’t have to accept it. Don’t be intimidated in defending your pioneer ancestors’ heritage in Texas and Southwest. Don’t let others define who we are.

Our long Spanish Mexican record speaks for itself. In President Thomas Jefferson’s words, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand your ground.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Indira Esparza at her Chancellor’s Associates Scholars Program graduation at the University of California San Diego’s Thurgood Marshall School. (Photo by John Gastaldo/San Diego Union Tribune).