Think of a map of North America, and then turn it upside down so that Mexico and Texas are at the top and near the middle, and New England drips down like an appendage, nearly falling off the edge at the bottom.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto has done something like that with North American history in his fascinating but problem-plagued new book "Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States." He tells the history of the territory that is now known as the U.S.A. from the point of view of Spanish speakers, going back more than five centuries to the days of the conquistadors.
"Where, in what is now U.S. territory, was the first enduring European colony, still occupied today, established?" Fernández-Armesto asks as "Our America" opens. It's a question, he says, he placed to several PhDs applying for a job as a U.S. history professor at Tufts University. Many said Jamestown, or Florida. But none, he says, gave the correct answer: Puerto Rico.
Like a lot of Latino intellectuals in the U.S., Fernández-Armesto has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He knows the U.S. historical establishment has relegated the Spanish speakers to the fringes. One of his aims in "Our America" is to show that Latinos have been here as long as any other European group.
For the first half of the book, then, Fernández-Armesto relates the history of the territory that would become the U.S. from the point of view of the Spanish Empire and of the early Mexican Republic. This proves to be an interesting kind of thought exercise, and all sorts of strange and otherwise obscure elements of North American history come tumbling onto the page as he does so.
In the mid-1700s, Georgia became a point of conflict between the rival British and Spanish empires, with British slavers crossing the border to raid Spanish missions. In 1796, a Spanish agent planted the Spanish flag among the Mandan Indians on the Upper Missouri River, but Spain tried and failed to stop Lewis and Clark from passing through the same territory (and meeting Sacagawea) a decade later. And finally, the Spanish Empire paid large sums of money to a Kentucky leader with a wild but never-realized scheme to secede from the United States and join Spain.
The problem with this approach is that it imposes a framework on the history of North America that's often as false as the Anglo-centered perspective it purports to correct. After the end of the Revolutionary War, for example, Fernández-Armesto tells us that the British Empire proposed to the new United States a joint attack on Santa Fe, "the effective capital of Spanish North America." But that statement is incorrect: Mexico City was the capital of Spanish North America. What Fernández-Armesto means to say is that Santa Fe was "the effective capital of the territories that used to be part of Spain but which are now part of the United States." But what really, is the point of making such an unwieldy statement?
Santa Fe is now part of the U.S., and its government and legal institutions are descendants of the 13 Colonies. If you grow up in Santa Fe and your last name is Vigil or Longoria, you have as much right to claim Tom Paine, the Bill of Rights and Jeffersonian ideals as your own as someone called Jones or Smith. And if you grow up speaking Spanish in Los Angeles, Martin Luther King is infinitely more relevant to your personal history than 17th century Spanish monarch Carlos II.
Fernández-Armesto's Latino-centrism leads him to make another dubious statement as he pushes the story of Latino America into the 20th century. "In a sense, the black journey toward an American identity began in Latin America," he writes, citing the work of two Cuban writers who lived and worked long after Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington helped shape African American thought in the U.S.
Much of the second half of "Our America" resembles the popular, heroes-and-villains version of U.S. history Howard Zinn once penned. Fernández-Armesto provides a lucid account of the theft of property and the oppression suffered by the Spanish-speaking residents of California and Texas after the Mexican War, though here too he commits a gaffe, confusing the last governor of Mexican California, Pío Pico, with the 19th century Latino lieutenant governor of California, Pablo de la Guerra, and giving us a nonexistent "Pablo Pico."
"Our America" is an exceedingly well-written and engaging essay, but it's not really a history in the proper sense of the word. It's more of a polemic, aimed at thinkers like the late Samuel Huntington, who argued for the primacy of the British Protestant strain in the cultural DNA of the United States. But Huntington's ethnically centered, deeply conservative take on the American experience is already at the margins of most historical scholarship today. In a certain sense, Fernández-Armesto is fighting a battle in "Our America" that isn't necessary to fight and that's already been won.
A Hispanic History of the United States
W.W. Norton: 416 pp., $27.95
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