I have spent the last week reading the book, Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, by University of Notre Dame Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto on the history of Hispanics in America. I also had the pleasure of speaking with him earlier this afternoon, introduced by a mutual friend Professor James O’Rourke also of Notre Dame. All of this is in preparation for Hispanic Heritage Month, starting on September 15, which will be the focus for my wife Claudia and her foundation, We Are All Human, sponsored by several brands. It is important that brands and companies think about their role in Hispanic Heritage month and it should not distract from their broader efforts to address systemic racism.
Professor Fernandez-Armesto told me today, “The ignorance of the Hispanic dimension of U.S. history is stunning. Until now, American history has been dominated by Anglo Saxon culture, a tradition that dates to scholarship of the 19th century when the British Empire reigned supreme. This same mentality applied to the growth of American power from the late 1800s until today. We are only now going to escape this trap.”
American colonial history did not actually begin in Jamestown or at Plymouth Rock, despite the legend of Thanksgiving. It was in Puerto Rico, with the landing by Columbus in 1493, then in Florida with the advent of Ponce de Leon in the early 1500s in search of the Fountain of Youth. St. Augustine was the first American city, not Williamsburg or Boston. The first explorers of the West were not Lewis and Clark; rather Coronado and Cabez de Vaca were traversing the plains in the 1540s. Junipero Serra came north from Baja in the mid-1700s to establish monasteries along the California coast from San Diego to Monterrey. General Galvez, a Spaniard, led troops in the conquest of Pensacola, FL from the British. “There were more Spaniards fighting in the U.S. Revolution than Americans. They went as far north as Illinois, not for purposes of conquest but to engage in combat with the British. The Spanish gave more money than the French to support the American Revolution.”
Hispanics have been part of this country from the beginning as in fact many parts of what is now the U.S. originally belonged to Mexico. There were over 100,000 Hispanics in the territories annexed by the U.S. in the wake of the Mexican-American War. They were cattle ranchers and businesspeople, spread across the Southwest and West Coast who became citizens but in name only. American settlers set out to expropriate their lands. Fernandez Armesto writes, “The most notorious case was that of Don Manuel Dominguez, whose estate of 75,000 acres had been established by a grant of the Spanish crown in 1784. In typical maneuvers, the U.S. authorities swindled him out of this land by imposing requirements to defend his rights in prejudiced courts.” He tells of the Berryessa family of San Jose, CA. The eldest, Nemasio, “was lynched on a false charge of murder in a dispute over the family’s mercury mine, seized by Anglos using forged grants. Two of his brothers were later lynched, instigated by purloiners of the mine.” Of the Hispanic families living in Los Angeles in the 1840s, only one quarter remained by the early 1850s.
In the 1910 period Mexicans began coming back to the U.S. The number of Mexicans in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois was up eight-fold in that decade, with as much as 40 percent of railroad maintenance crews of Hispanic origin. “U.S. policy rather than wishes of immigrants decreed immigrant movement. When the U.S. wants cheap labor, Mexicans respond,” the author writes. Mexican population in the US surged from 5 million in 1900 to 15 million by 1930. Then came the Great Depression and deportations began. Two million people were sent back to Mexico from 1929 to 1939, with half a million out of Los Angeles county alone. “Anybody who looked Mexican was liable to be forcibly deported.”
The next phase was in the 1960s, when re-Hispanicization proceeded through temporary work permits, beginning in agriculture. Five million Mexicans and six million from the rest of the Americas were admitted, along with seven million Asians. Cesar Chavez became the face of the Chicano movement, as his advocacy for farmworkers led to a boycott of grapes in 1965 toward the right of collective bargaining, achieved in 1970. And now Hispanics represent 18 percent of the U.S. population and 12 percent of U.S. GNP.
I asked Professor Fernandez Armesto where to go from here. “We need to alert Americans to the injustices of the past. And we need to portray heroes of our own past.” We talked about Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans who were among the first Hispanics in Major League Baseball, playing for the Cincinnati Reds in 1911; Joan Baez, folk singer, songwriter and activist; Helen Rodríguez Trías, a pediatrician, educator and women's rights activist who was the first Latina president of the American Public Health Association; Jorge Farragut, a hero of the American Revolution as a naval captain and major in the army; Vicente Martinez-Ybor, an entrepreneur who became a noted industrialist and cigar manufacturer; Joseph Marion Hernández, the first Hispanic to serve in the U.S. Congress in 1822; and George Santayana, a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. “This country has a Hispanic past as well as a Hispanic future. You only know where you are when you know where you came from.”
Richard Edelman is CEO.