As the presumptive GOP candidate moved across the Southwest during the last few weeks and protests broke into violence from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to San Diego, California, I was reminded of the words Walt Whitman wrote in 1883 in a letter commemorating the 333rd anniversary of the founding of Santa Fe. Always aware of the diversity of America and the need for one set of values to counter and balance another, Whitman writes, “As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?”
Of course, as we all know today, that river of untapped talent was not to flow openly for many generations. As could be gauged from the shouts coming from the GOP nominee supporters who demanded the Hispanic protesters “go back to Mexico,” it has become clear to me that the “sterling value” Whitman spoke of has yet to be appreciated.
As tensions escalated at every GOP rally point throughout last week, both parties present sought to assert their legitimacy within the United States by hurling shouts and insults at each other. This carried me back to Whitman’s opening assertion that “(w)e Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them.”
To this day, not only is much of our official history ignored, but almost the entirety of the history of the American West and its peoples still remains unknown to most Americans. Crediting the North and South with the bulk of our history, the assumption is that the history of the West is but an extension of the history of the East, which began either with the discovery of gold in California in 1849 or the transference of the movie industry to Los Angeles at the turn of the last century.
This myopic view of our history leaves out the history of the thousands of Mexican families that became Americans after the Treaty of Guadalupe ceded more than 50 percent of the Mexican territory to the United States. It also leaves out of the map the histories of the millions of American Indians who today still reside west of the Mississippi. Consequently, the root of the misunderstandings that exploded into violence during the last few weeks across the Southwest lies within this ignorance of our own history and our own inability to confront it.
As this events illustrate, by questioning the American citizenship of the Hispanic protesters during the Republican rallies, the supporters of the presumptive GOP candidate not only invalidated the protesters grievances, they more markedly demonstrated their ignorance or inability to recollect the centuries-long relationship between the Southwest and Mexico.
Insisting on a wall that will demarcate the entire Mexico-United States border, the presumptive GOP candidate supporters ignore the cultural significance that life at the border has had for generations of Mexican-Americans living in the United States.
The historical reality is that many citizens of color living in the Southwest had to counter a racist dominant society that attempted to deculturate them in order to integrate them into a society where they rested permanently as second-class citizens. The people of Mexican descent living in the United States felt compelled to unite under Mexico, its traditions and its language in order to survive emotionally and psychologically as a people.
This unification under Mexico and its traditions is more than a nostalgic backward look toward a lost nation. It has, for many generations of Mexican-Americans, stood as a conscious act of resistance in the face of the dominant culture that sought to oppress them. As psychologist Beverly D. Tatum explains in “Why Are All the Blacks Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” “Cultural identities are not solely determined in response to racial ideologies, but racism increases the need for positive self-defined identity in order to survive psychologically.”
When hundreds of the GOP candidate’s protesters took to the streets last week vaunting Mexican slogans and waving Mexican flags, it was more than an affirmation of Mexico and its diverse culture: they were affirming their own identities as Americans whose roots rest precisely on the multicultural and multi-ethnic soil of the Southwest.
To question the citizenship and loyalty to the United States of the GOP candidate protesters is a fallacy that simply denigrates and invalidates the very mixed history of our nation. By robbing the protesters of their identity as Americans, the GOP candidate supporters are robbing the nation of an opportunity to unite as a country and proactively bring about the cultural and economic changes that all of us desire.
David Gayton writes about modifying social change through identifying uncritical behavior within cultural politics from the perspective of a gay Chicano United States Marine Corps veteran.