America’s Hispanic Past and its Hispanic Future Proves it is not Exceptional

“even well-educated, amiable, open-minded people in the United States do not realize that their country has a Hispanic past as well as a Hispanic future.”

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States

Over the last few weeks I have read Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States. The book by one of the world’s finest historians dates from 2013/14, and yet it is remarkably timely in the wake of the American 2020 election that shook up lazy assumptions about the political behaviour of Hispanic Americans, and more broadly of the tensions between race, culture and identity.

The Hispanic past is as essential to understanding America’s present as the landing of John Smith at Jamestown, near Pocahontas’ territory, or the pilgrims at Plymouth or the westward expansion of the frontier. Spanish America covered more territory than Anglo America at the time of the founding of the United States, as shown in the map featured with this post. A succession of forgotten Spanish territories came late to the Union after a series of ignominious wars and dispossessions that have now fallen into general oblivion: Louisiana (1812, after a detour through Paris and a real estate sale), Florida (1845), Texas (1845), California (1850), Colorado (1876), New Mexico (1912) and Arizona (1912).

And, of course, there is Puerto Rico, still just a territory, ceded by the Spanish Empire in 1898, but illustrative of the neglected Spanish origins of America. Fernandez-Armesto tells the story of how he would interview candidates for professors of colonial American history with the following question:

“Where, in what is now US territory, was the first enduring European colony, still occupied today, established?”

Even well-trained, scholarly professionals stumbled on this question. They would generally say Jamestown, Virginia. Some would point to somewhere in Florida, or name San Agustin, Florida (1565) or Santa Fe, New Mexico (1598). But the correct answer is, in fact, Puerto Rico in 1505.

Fernandez-Armesto uses a metaphor of American history being woven from a warp of Westward movement of British people and cultures, and from a weave of Northward movement of the mingled, mestizo traditions of Spanish America. The threads forming the fabric from both directions had many strands of complex history and faith, and as they pushed through the continent they were transformed by their encounters with the peoples and resurgent empires of Native Americans, who in turn adapted their own cultures. The friction and torsion on the threads, as events pulled them through the 19th, 20th and now 21st century, changed the appearance of the cloth, and this braided complexity tumbled its way through dyes of wealth, embroidery of immigration, and decoration of great imperial power. The magic carpet made of these events is America today. No-one can read Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, and think of America’s past in the cartoonish versions, whether progressive or patriotic, touted in popular culture.

As the election also suggested, the Hispanic peoples of America may well prove more important for the future of America than Black Lives Matter, or the wearied, disordered mutterings of President-Suspect Biden of the Imperial War Faction. Fernandez-Armesto surveys the demographic growth and diversification of Hispanic Americans or Latino Americans since the 1960s, and the growing responsiveness of political parties to these constituencies. He notes the low point of the Hispanic vote for Republicans in 2012, when establishment Republicans were cornered on issues of immigration, and outwitted on issues of citizenship. Trump’s recovery of the Hispanic vote in eight years is truly remarkable, and shows more attunement to the magic carpet of American history perhaps than many are willing to attribute to the President. Fernandez-Armesto also briefly considers the prospect of America adopting a second language of Spanish, although he considers it unlikely, despite the benefits. But clearly he thinks Americans can go forward more comfortably in the world if they embrace their Hispanic past and their plural Hispanic future.

Fernandez-Armesto is always witty, always wise, and wryly provocative. He is profoundly provocative on the theme of American exceptionalism. He glosses his history with the comment that “vast stretches of what are now the US West and Southwest have, therefore, a long history as terrains of competition between rival empires” – Spanish, British, French, Comanche, Sioux, Mexican and the USA itself. Most provocatively he writes:

“Unlike most nineteenth-century empires, however, that of the United States in continental North America and, ultimately, in Hawaii, self-converted into part of “the nation.” The majority of inhabitants came to think of themselves as “Americans,” albeit in some cases modified by regional feeling or by pride of ancestry… The case most comparable to that of the United States is China’s [my emphasis]. Both empires have been astonishingly effective in spreading, among their constituent peoples, common allegiance and customs and uniform notions of themselves…. I think it is fair to say that China is the only other surviving empire (or surviving state with an imperial past) that can match the United States in this respect.”

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States

As that “nation” formed an empire through the nineteenth and twentieth century in part from claiming for freedom and enterprise the territories of the decadent European Empire of Spain – from Florida to California and beyond to Puerto Rico and the Philippines – it repressed the trauma of its aggressive expansion, and with that the memories of its Spanish and Latin American past, and the sufferings of its Hispanic peoples. The national myth of the hardy frontiersman or city slicker – of Northern European stock, Protestant faith and intrepid independence – was built on expunging the intellectual giants of American Hispanic culture, like Santayana, repressing its cultural and religious traditions, and dispossessing and exiling so many of the indigenous and Hispanic ranchers, workers and missionaries of California and other states. Fernandez-Armesto makes clear that the treatment of these peoples through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by both white and black in the USA, are historical injustices every bit as shameful as Jim Crow.

And today the American rivalry with China is fuelled by the belief that America is and remains exceptional: a nation without empire that is the beacon of democracy to the world; an empire that declares itself the leader of the free world; a republic founded by an uniquely wise constitution, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Fernandez-Armesto punctures this self-satisfied and trite illusion of the American Mind. He notes for example that the great reservoir of American national wounds, the civil war, was not so different to other national formations in the nineteenth century: “the US experience of civil war resembled roughly contemporary events in Italy, Germany and Japan, where wars unified countries that were either fragmented or in danger of fragmentation.” He labels the United States, a Latin American country, and perhaps we are seeing the diseases and disorders of this continent’s forms of democracy in this year’s events during the unrest, election, coup and counter-coups in American. Perhaps the shadowy origins of Dominion Systems, the operators of dodgy election voting machines, in Venezuela is a Latin American Banquo’s ghost coming back to haunt a guilty American democracy? It is not an exceptional culture, a proud constitution, or a specially democratic temper that distinguish events in North American and Latin American history, in the argument of Fernandez-Armesto.

“The biggest single difference, if one compares what we loosely call Latin America collectively with the United States and Canada is that from the Rio Grande to the Paraguay, European colonists encountered large, densely settled incumbent populations with whom they could collaborate in building colonial societies, whereas in what became the United States and Canada, Native American peoples – or “First Nations” in Canadian parlance – were too thinly distributed to be useful as a pool of labor. Their economic traditions were for colonists’ purposes, unexploitable. Therefore the United States became a land of white people and black slaves, where the Native Americans were exterminated or expelled or confined to tiny patches. Meanwhile, all the countries of Latin America except Chile and Argentina (whose histories resemble that of the United States in many respects) retained huge indigenous populations and elements of precolonial economies and culture.”

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States

Referring to Samuel Huntington’s work on the clash of civilizations and the exceptional character of the American political tradition, Fernandez-Armesto goes on to comment that:

“Belief in the exceptional character of the United States underpins Huntington’s question, whereas it is at least worth asking whether it is helpful to emphasize US exceptionalism. All countries are exceptional in the sense of having features that distinguish them from all others. All are exempt from some generalizations. But is the United States more exceptional than anywhere else?”

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States

Even its success does not arise from the indispensability of this nation nor the unique talents and temper of its people: “Historians have alleged many reasons for the economic and military success of the United States. The size of the internal market and the availability of vast, uniquely exploitable lands exceed all others in importance.”

So, America must face its real present, and not its purified past or ambitiously speculated great future. Its population compared to the developing new great states (China and India), the exhaustion of its resources, the sclerosis of its political institutions, the recent psychoses of its coddled cultural elites, and the over-extension of its military state in 800 military bases around the world and too many endless wars – all these factors are confronting America, and asking it to look at itself in the mirror with more humility and more realism. It will need to acknowledge its place and origins in the world and begin to see itself no longer as the paramount global empire, but, again in Fernandez-Armesto’s phrase, as a “Latin American country.”

And that may require not a replacement of arrogant globalist imperialism with truculent populist nationalism (Biden/Obama with Trump), but rather less celebration of nation, freedom and greatness, and rather more humble dignity rooted in the cultural pluralism so evident in the complex braid of Hispanic and other cultures that Fernandez-Armesto celebrates in this fine book.

“Coming generations of US citizens are going to need the rest of the Americas…. The United States does not need to be an Anglo redoubt in order to remain itself. On the contrary, it is, by the inescapable virtue of history, a model of pluralism, with a strong Hispanic dimension. To be true to the country’s past, American patriots can commit without fear to a similarly plural future. In the United States we must make pluralism work because, paradoxically perhaps, it is the one creed that can unite us.”

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States

This call to ground future unity in the great cultural tradition of pluralism – not at all exceptionally American, but carried in many cultural traditions, many cooperating civilizations – would be a salve for the distressed republic of America today. I can only hope that someone in the camps of Biden and Trump, and someone with status to talk across the aisle, with the capacity to speak directly to America’s Hispanic heritage, someone like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, picks up Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, and reads it all the way to its telling end.

Image Source: By Nagihuin – Own work based on Mapa base/Base map Wikipedia

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