My wife and I were in San Antonio a few years ago, and we decided to take the tour of the Alamo that everyone seems to take when they visit there. As we walked around the different exhibits, we noticed a mother talking to her young child about what happened during the battle there. “The bad people had the Americans surrounded and outnumbered,” she said. “So we fought back and won.”
We looked at each other and kind of wondered about what the woman had just said. If you had sat through the ten minute presentation by one of the historians there, you’d come to know that Texas was a territory of Mexico at the time. Americans had moved in as undocumented immigrants and taken over land. Other English-speaking Texans (Texians) were Mexican citizens, but they held closer ties to the United States. In 1835, the Texians and the “illegals” started an armed insurrection against the Mexican government. The rebels held back the Mexican troops at The Alamo as long as they could before being run-over. More battles ensued until the Texan rebels won independence from Mexico in 1836. Over the next ten years, several skirmishes between the Mexicans and the Republic of Texas took place, leading the United States to intercede and annex Texas into the United States in 1845.
That annexation led to the Mexican-American war between 1846 and 1848. That war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Under the terms of that treaty, most of the states in the west (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado) became territories of the United States. Mexicans living in those states were given the option to migrate down to Mexico or stay and become full citizens of the United States. Almost everyone chose to stay.
So, as you can see, labeling the belligerents at The Alamo as “good” or “bad” is a very simplistic way of looking at how that whole thing went down. The Alamo now sits in the United States, so I’m sure that’s why there is that view that the Mexicans were the bad guys. If The Alamo, and all of Texas, had stayed in Mexican control, the story would be different.
Likewise, when people see Hispanic people with Hispanic surnames in the American west, a lot of them assume that those Hispanics are immigrants. For the most part, they’re not. For the most part, their families have been Americans for about 160 years. They just happen to have the names their families had at the time of the treaty. And this is true of many Native Americans from those areas as well. Their names were replaced with Hispanic names as the Spanish conquest marched up into those places we now know as “The Southwest.”
You have to give them credit for not anglicizing their names, though. The Rodriguez didn’t become Rodricks, and the Puentes didn’t become Bridges.
So, to have a clear grasp of the social and political dynamics west of Texas, and to understand why immigration is such a big deal on the border states and beyond, you have to understand how all of those states became American states. But don’t stop there. Read up on why Americans flocked to Texas, and why the Mexican government was welcoming of those “new Mexicans.” Then go back even further and understand what the whole concept of “Manifest Destiny” was and why it influenced what the US is today on the world stage.
In other words, don’t just paint groups as good and bad based on the current state of things. The present is much more complicated than you’d think… And it is complicated because of an even more complicated past.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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