Monday, April 10, 2006

How the Mexicans Became Spanish

The Spanish-American image of the Southwest was, curiously enough, largely a creation of the Anglo rather than the Mexican imagination. In California an Anglo literary movement romanticizing the state’s early past became popular in the 1880s.

Significantly, this movement, despite having its roots in pre-1848 Anglo travel narratives, gained impetus just as californios were losing their last strongholds to Anglos in southern California. Before then, except in a few works such as those of Bret Harte, Mexicans in Anglo-American literature were most often treated in a thoroughly negative way, as a racially inferior, ignorant, half-savage people blocking the advance of the U.S. frontier in the same way as the Indians.

In southern Arizona and South Texas, where Mexico and its population remained a constant threat to Anglo influence well into the twentieth century, the earlier picture of Mexicans as half- barbaric continued with little modification. But in California, where the Mexicans’ percentage of the total population and their overall influence had declined steeply by the 1880s, it was much easier for Anglos to feel sympathy for the passing of an “older, simpler way of life.” As Anglo settlement of California increased, the earlier Anglo conception of the state changed; by the 1880s California was no longer the wilderness frontier of the Gold Rush, but a booming agricultural wonderland.

This new conception colored the Anglo view of California’s past. Anglos began to think of the state before 1848 not as a wild country peopled by Indians and half-savage Mexicans, but as a bountiful land occupied by pastoral peoples living in a “half-civilized Spanish” society.

This new image of California served the Anglo psychology by “explaining” the prior settlement of Mexicans in California, indirectly justifying the Anglo conquest, and in general alleviating guilt feelings.

Click here to read more of the extract.
With regard to Mexicans themselves, the new image was merely a change in emphasis rather than substance. While Mexicans were still seen as racially inferior, ignorant, and half-savage, the positive side of these qualities was stressed because of the guilt Anglos now felt over the destruction of the old society. Indolence, one of the main “biological traits” of the Mexican, and ignorance were now seen as contributing factors to the “blissful” state of affairs existing in early California. The Mexicans’ half-savage nature, attributed to their Indian background, was now seen as modified by their Spanish blood. The Spanish side of their mixed nature provided a civilizing influence that permitted the development of a certain refinement in early California society, which nevertheless remained unspoiled by “advanced” civilization.’

Californios in the 1880s were flattered by the attention and even “respect’ their culture was getting after so many years of Anglo hostility and indifference. The myth also gained popularity among Californios because it appealed to their nostalgia, their caste consciousness, and their provincial pride.

The new interest in old California led to a movement among Anglos to preserve the missions and other early historical sites, a movement that gratified Mexicans who had feared that all signs of their past would disappear forever. The new emphasis on things Spanish, and especially on the notion that californios were predominantly if not purely Spanish, appealed to californios because in their society as in other Latin American societies, pure Spanish blood was a mark of gentility.

Even though early documents clearly reveal that California’s original settlers were not even predominantly Spanish, the belief that those settlers were European increased among californios as time passed, since both their own and Anglo culture saw such ancestry as desirable.

The notion that the first settlers were more or less pure Spanish was accompanied by another fiction. Because California was so distant from the large concentrations of Indian population in Mexico, it was believed that the descendants of the early settlers had been largely spared the evils of miscegenation, even though a few generations had been born and had lived in close contact with the California Indians.

Closely allied to this belief was the idea that California’s healthy environment had combined with the californios’ purity of stock to make them physically superior to Mexicans farther south. californios, needless to say, were also flattered by the idea, especially since regionalism had been strong in California before 1848 (a period, as we have seen, in Mexico’s history marred by the struggle between those who wanted a strong central government and those who preferred more local control). As a result, californios began to de-emphasize and even deny their ties with Mexico and with those Mexicans who were more recent arrivals.

John R. Chávez, The Lost Land: The Chicano Image of the Southwest


The revival was not limited to California. Nuevomexicanos picked up on it as well, but because they were a majority of the territories population, were able to use the myth of their pure Spanish ancestry to preserve language and culture. Something that I don't know if anyone has addressed is the parallel Spanish revival in California and New Mexico: the preservation of patrimony and vernacular building in styles reminiscent of the Spanish colonial era. It seems to me that California architecture drew more upon the mission as inspiration, while New Mexico architecture was modeled on the home/ranch.

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