Little else feeds the fever of fear frenzy more than shifting demographic data. Too, nothing ignites the volatile anti-immigrant rhetoric quicker than news reports that attribute U.S. Hispanics’ growth to recent immigration.
As a result, many Anglo and Northern European-descent citizens wrongly assume that immigrants have “taken over” the Southwest.
Sadly, some folks hold that incorrect opinion because Hispanic presence in the U.S. is rarely discussed in its proper historical context. For example, (l) ignored are the visible Spanish footprints in most of what today is the U.S.A. (generally south of the 40th parallel), and (2), why it is that bilingual Hispanics of Mexican-descent tend to live in the Southwest.
Regrettably based on the constant barrage of misinformation, so-called white nativist groups in particular miss the fact that the U.S.-Mexico border (the fence) is in the middle of Old Mexico. In spite of unmistakable clues revealing its past, they refuse to accept the border as a conduit channeling the area’s strong bi-national Spanish Mexican ambience.
Spanish heritage names abound, such as Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, El Paso, San Antonio, Laredo, as well as having states called New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Texas. The Spanish impact goes farther east, with its traces appearing on both sides of the Appalachian Mountains.
For example, early maps describe land north of Florida to the Chesapeake Bay as “Tierra de Ayllón” (Land of Ayllón). In 1526, in present-day Georgia, Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón established San Miguel de Guadalupe; site of the first Christian religious service in today’s U.S.
There’s much more. In Virginia, before Jamestown (1607), there was Ajacán (1570). Santa Elena, South Carolina was established in 1566. Spanish explorer Juan Pardo in 1567 takes the credit for naming the place we know as Tennessee; calling the region “Tanasquí”, in honor of a local indigenous village. Before they were called Memphis and Vicksburg, their names were San Fernando and Nogales.
Also, New Madrid, Missouri was built by General Bernardo Gálvez in 1777. It was Gálvez who first invited Anglo settlers from the U.S. to settle in Illinois and Missouri (then part of Spanish Louisiana). Plus, archeologists continue to study additional early Spanish settlements being unearthed throughout New England and the Southeast.
Clearly, skeptics don’t recognize the strength of Spanish traits in the U.S. DNA strand. That’s because they adhere to an entrenched anti-Spanish viewpoint (Hispanophobia), and fail to link 15th-19th Century Spain as a key element in the early development of our country.
That’s especially true of New Mexico. Of all the areas that Europeans successfully first explored for settlement within today’s mainland U.S., Nuevo México was second (Florida was first). For example, Santa Fe, located on El Camino Real, in the beautiful enigmatic Land of Enchantment, was home to the Spanish long before there was even a province called Texas.
Also, El Reino del Nuevo México (the realm of New Mexico) was much larger than present-day New Mexico. Embracing most of the Southwestern states, it included upper Texas with its undeclared border stretching to El Cuartelejo in Kansas and beyond into present-day Nebraska). Incidentally, El Paso was part of New Mexico for nearly 200 years before 1848, when the U.S. added it to Texas.
Indeed, New Mexico showed great promise. Thinking that Florida was fairly close, Spanish officials hoped the new venture would connect the two prongs (Florida and New Mexico). Thus, the dozens of Jesuit and Franciscan missions and pueblos already dotting the Southeast landscape would merge with those now being established in New Mexico.
Importantly, by then the Spanish focus wasn’t one of conquest, but of Christianizing Spain’s native subjects. Thus, per the 1573 Royal Orders for New Discoveries, religious leaders rather than military commanders were put in charge. While the conduct of some of the priests was horridly heavy-handed at times, indigenous people were able to learn two industries still going strong in New Mexico — ranching and farming. Paying the ultimate price, an untold number of padres became martyrs; slayed by the very people they were trying to serve.
It’s important to remember this. A strong religious mandate had driven Spanish policy since nearly the very beginning. Viceroys already had in their possession clear marching orders, beginning with the royal edicts called the Laws of Burgos (1512) prohibiting the mistreatment of natives throughout America.
Additional directives soon gave rise to the collection of laws known as Recopilación de Leyes de los Reynos de las Indias (Compilation of the Laws of the Kingdoms of the Indies). History records that Spanish officials in America who violated them were severely punished. Still, due to the great distance involved, assuring human rights was not always certain.
That’s not to propose that abuses stopped or that issuing these laws excuses Spanish atrocities in New Mexico (for that matter anywhere else). Still, in fairness, it does paint a more merciful picture of the inclusive nature of Spanish policy toward indigenous people.
Author David J. Weber puts it this way: “In contrast to the Anglo-American frontier in North America which largely excluded natives, Spain sought to include natives within its new world societies.”
In support of Author Weber’s premise, it’s worth mentioning that during the length of New Mexico’s “iron versus stone” clash, religious missions greatly outnumbered military presidios. That’s because Spanish kings forbade the use of the word “conquest” to describe their global scope. In short, the all-embracing mindset of Spanish royals is unique among European monarchies.
Assimilation wasn’t easy. In trying to reach and teach their new brothers and sisters, some Spanish faith strategies worked, others didn’t work as well, and still others failed to work. Yet, as proof of the strong Christian foothold first imprinted by often-barefoot Catholic padres is the fact that San Xavier del Bac Mission (est. 1692) located in Tohono O’odham Nation land in Arizona is the region’s oldest European-style structure. Still in operation, it attracts many visitors each year. Also, El Santuario de Chimayó (est. 1810) near Santa Fe is regarded as the most venerated of all Catholic pilgrimage sites in the U.S.
To be sure, the violent meeting between our European and indigenous ancestors (as in New Mexico) is undisputed. The encounter’s explosive nature produced lasting rancor still felt today.
Yet, New Mexico’s remarkable “fusion by fire” helped produce the gente de bronce (people of bronze) called Mexican Americans. Half white and half brown, we now number over 30 million in the U.S. alone.
In the end, we choose to live in the Southwest alongside our Native American brethren with whom we have so much more that unites us than divides us. Besides, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s been home to our blended family since 1598. We are after all, the children of the promise of New Mexico.