In a previous article, I mentioned that the contentious fence on our southern border was being built in the middle of northern Old Mexico (New Spain).

A reader asked what I meant by that. I am happy to answer the question.

Likewise, this article will have the side benefit of countering recent anti-Spanish comments of John Huppenthal, former head of the Arizona Department of Education. His bizarre cause and effect theory is as follows – the majority of Mexican-descent citizens in the Southwest are poor because they speak Spanish.

John Huppenthal, former head of the Arizona Department of Education.
John Huppenthal, former head of the Arizona Department of Education.

He claims the following: Do away with the Spanish language in the U.S. and it will eliminate poverty among Mexican-descent people. Incredible! Though, why is it that he and so many non-Hispanic people fail to recognize the nature of the U.S. Mexico border as a permanent Mason-Dixon Line? Why is it they don’t know that Spanish has been spoken longer than English in what is today the U.S.? Why is it they are clueless about the reasons why we Mexican-descent people in Texas and the Southwest speak Spanish?

The fact is that today’s descendants of the original Spanish Mexican pioneers in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California, and Texas continue to speak Spanish, the first European language to be spoken here. After all, the Southwest is in New Spain, not New England.

That reality contradicts a generally accepted perception in conventional U.S. history books. They try to make readers believe that the land the U.S. took from Mexico in 1848 was largely uninhabited. Not so! To illustrate, the following quote from historian John Francis Bannon clearly paints conquered Texas and the Southwest with much more clarity:

“The Anglo Americans who came to Texas with Stephen F. Austin were not in the true sense pioneers; they found not a wilderness but a society already in existence and a foreign power in possession; neither were the traders who came across the Great Plains. Folk of European origin were already well established and had a society ready to do business. U.S. ships in the Pacific Coast, as well as mountain men and settlers, found the same type of thriving communities in California. The Borderlands story is a fundamental starting point for the comprehension of the problem of one of the nation’s contemporary minority groups – the Mexican Americans. They are descendants of those sturdy Borderlanders of yesterday who made real contributions to that real, but somewhat nebulous thing called American civilization.”

Indeed, when Stephen F. Austin and his companions arrived in Texas, they were leaving the U.S. forever behind by immigrating to Mexico. They willingly adopted the Spanish Mexican culture. So true was his belief that Mexico offered hope and opportunity to the Anglos, that Austin changed his first name to Esteban. Too, he enthusiastically embraced the Mexican demeanor in form of attire and way of life. He relied heavily on Martin and Patricia de León, his sponsors and mentors in Texas. They taught him all he needed to know about being an effective empresario. In reciprocal form, the de León children taught the Austin children to speak Spanish and in turn benefited by learning English from their new friends – true bilingualism!

The Spanish language and Spanish Mexican footprints abound in the Southwest. For example, before the U.S. subsumed the Southwest, the territory encompassed the provinces (states) of Alta California, Baja California, Nueva Vizcaya, Nuevo México, Nueva Extremadura (Coahuila), Tejas, and Nuevo Santander.

Towns in Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila, such as Monclova were key commerce destinations. Today, U.S. citizens strike them off as foreign cities. However, at one time they were magnets that attracted diverse groups of people, including U.S. Anglo travelers. Indeed, the vast region thrived with vibrant activities along the Camino Real’s southern trade routes.

In truth, Anglo people heading west used Spanish-developed maps, followed the Camino Real, and relied on Spanish-named points of interest (rivers, mountains, towns) along the way. In short, it was Spanish Mexican population centers that served as points of reference and as welcome oases that drew in the hungry, exhausted immigrants and travelers from the U.S.

The next time you hear about the Border Fence debate on TV, remember that in 1848, Texas was nowhere near the Rio Grande. As Mexico’s most northeasterly Provincias Internas, Texas was much farther north. So, the Border Fence cuts through the heart of Northern New Spain. (Here in South Texas, it split the vibrant Villas del Norte in two and stripped the state of Tamaulipas of about one fourth of its territory!)

Learning about our long-ignored early Texas history is most essential. Recently, the selection of the Vaquero as the mascot for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) generated a debate. Those who know about their early South Texas history overwhelmingly support the decision. Those opposed to the respectful tribute tend to be terribly unaware that the honorable tradition of the vaquero founded the Rio Grande Valley in the first place. Sadly, generations of being told their history was not important contributes to disbelief and cynicism. Only by learning about the past will they stop viewing the rich vaquero tradition in negative terms.

In summary, due to a perpetual colonialism attitude based on the Manifest Destiny myth, our group (a “Class Apart”) has occupied the lowest socio-economic level since 1848. At all costs, Spanish-surnamed, Spanish-speaking citizens of Mexican-descent originating in South Texas (Rio Grande Valley) must first get to re-learn and then accept the fact that they are not immigrants to the U.S. Indeed, that is what separates us from our sister Hispanic groups that came later as immigrants. Let’s remind ourselves (and our children) that our ability to speak in two languages is a true blessing that their peers in school don’t have.

José Antonio 'Joe' López
José Antonio ‘Joe’ López

As to the Berlin Wall-type border fence, those who think that it’s going to keep Mexican-descent citizens on this side of the border from speaking Spanish (English Only) are in for great disappointment. Spanish was spoken 24/7 in Texas and the Southwest yesterday; is spoken today, and will be spoken tomorrow. Bilingualism is here to stay. Judging from the millions of dollars being spent in Spanish language multi-media advertising, the U.S. business community depends on it.

As to the absurd cause and effect theory mentioned above, it’s hard to believe that the man who proposed it occupied Arizona’s top education job. No doubt his Hispanophobia is due to a lack of education (no pun intended.) Being bilingual has nothing to do with being poor.

If anybody tells you that Hispanics can make it in the U.S. only if they learn English, tell them that speaking English has not necessarily helped Blacks gain equality in this country. The same goes for the plight of our Native American brethren.

Lastly, let’s use the education process to chip away at the wrong perception that the general public has about our heritage on this side of the U.S. Mexico border. If we stay together, we can erase that wrong view in one generation. In the sage advice of Dr. Lino Garcia, Jr., UTRGV: ¡Un paso a la vez! ¡Pero, adelante, siempre adelante!