History Book Club
El Norte: Spain’s Exploration and Colonization
of North America
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Mexican-American War 1846-48.
Wednesday, September 25, 2019: El Norte, the story of Spain’s exploration and colonization of North America. Often Americans study the growth of America from the standpoint of English colonization and the push westward. There’s another, very complex story, of the exploration of the Caribbean, Mexico, Florida and onward to California by the Spanish. It’s the story of Conquistadors, Priests and Indigenous peoples who created the Republic of Mexico, the nations of the Caribbean and Central America, and made the first cities in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California and more. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]
Gibson, Carrie. El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America; New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 2019.
The traditional way Americans are taught about the history of America is Columbus discovered the New World in 1492; the Pilgrims landed in 1620. From that grew the 13 Colonies. There was a Revolution, we gained our independence, people started to head west. Soon we had acquired states all the way to California and even Hawaii and Alaska.
Early in that history slaves were brought from Africa to America. Then people came from all over Europe to live here.
Carrie Gibson, author of El Norte, tells another story. After 1492 Spanish explorers—soldiers conquered territory, priests tried to convert the conquered Indians to Christianity, and civilians began colonies all over South America, and North America. Mexico City became the capital of New Spain.
Time after time, our leaders have shown their dislike and distrust for the Indians they encountered as they traveled over the growing nation, and the same for those brown-skinned people they encountered as they moved into New Spain, and eventually gained Texas and New Mexico, Arizona and California to join the United States. And of course, there were all those black Americans, descendants of those brought here as slaves.
Gibson starts and ends her exploration of Hispanic North America in Dalton, Georgia. When she graduated from high school there, Mexico was coming to that town. Mexicans continued to come and work in the rug factories there, and today they are the majority in this city which is 1200 miles from Mexico.
English settlers, and their descendants, as we swept across the continent, built and maintained a particular history that centered upon the white man. The Indians we fought, imprisoned, and drove into reservations. After the slaves were freed, we worked hard to “keep them in their place”. When the first American settlers arrived in northern Mexico, then called Tejas, we accepted Mexican hospitality, then took the land for America. The same with what is now California, Arizona and New Mexico.
All the time, we Americans taught our children the history of a white America, with all these red, black and brown-skinned Americans as kind of “background material”. Dalton lived for 20 years in England, as she worked on research projects involving Hispanic America. She was alarmed in 2012 at the words white Americans used to refer to Mexicans, envisioned as “illegals” and “border jumpers”. Then came the populist movement she saw before the 2016 election, in which Mexicans were seen as a threat; the chants to “Build the wall!” to keep out “Mexican murderers and rapists.”
Dalton quotes Poet Walt Whitman* in 1882 declaring that our history tied to white Englishmen needed to be exposed to its rich Hispanic roots, and that is exactly what she seeks to do in this book.
Gibson begins with the landing in what became “Hispaniola” by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Then in 1508 Ponce de León claimed the island of Puerto Rico for Spain. He landed in Florida in 1513 and was shot with an arrow by a Calusa Indian and died in Puerto Rico.
Getting started in Florida was hard for the Spaniards. In Mexico Cortez found an established society, and he found gold and silver. But in Florida the Indians moved from place to place, the weather was steamy and hot or cold, and there were plenty of mosquitoes. But no gold. However, by the early 1600s Florida was firmly in Spain’s orbit, with thousands of Christian converts; the French had been driven out and the Spanish had numerous alliances with Indian tribes.
The Spanish were brutal…there was much killing. But there was Bartolomé de las Casas. His father had joined Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, and his son arrived in Santo Domingo in 1502. He saw what was happening with bloodthirsty soldiers, and he soon became a priest who was influential in turning many away from brutality against the Indians.
In 1521 Spain conquered Mexica, and the whole territory that is now Mexico, and on up into what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas became Nueva España.
In 1525 the first Spanish settlement in North America was established near Sapelo Sound, GA. This is just north of St. Simon’s Island and Brunswick, GA. In 1565 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established the first permanent settlement in Florida, called San Augustine.
In 1535 Hernando Cortez sailed to Baja California in search of pearls. In 1602 Sebastián Vizcaino reached Cape Mendocino, CA, naming Monterey and San Diego along the way.
In 1610 Santa Fe was founded in New Mexico. In 1718 the military presidio, San Antonio de Bexár was built in south Texas, followed by construction of the mission San Antonio de Valero, later to be called “The Alamo”.
Lots of Spaniards were carving out what would become the United States, but white Spaniards often mated with Indians, and they were living in many places long before white English-speaking explorers and settlers arrived. If you grew up in the southwest this is an old story, but somehow the idea that America’s first class of people are white is one that has been pushed since the days of all white settlements in the original 13 colonies.
Spaniards established missions all over California, but after Mexico took over, they were secularized. When the Americans took over California, they could see that the missions were quickly disintegrating from neglect, but restoring them would be very costly. They returned them to the Roman Catholic Church. Sharp-eyed developers in the late 19th century saw the value of the missions to help market this glorious new American land. They turned to re-invigorating missions San Juan Bautista, Soledad, San Antonio, Miguel and Luis Obispo, and Santa Inez and Barbara.
In 2019 about 58.9 million people in the U.S. are of Hispanic heritage. That is about 18% of the population. In California 38.6% are Hispanic and in Texas 38%. There are more Hispanics in New York state than any other. It is time for white Americans to recognize that these brown and black people are part of America. They deserve to climb up the social ladder and to become equal partners in achieving the American dream.
The debate about immigration policy needs to take on a different tone. Of course, we cannot throw open our borders and let all enter, but our policy cannot—must not—center upon fear of people because of their race or national origin.
Many of us are not accustomed to looking at our world this way, and it will take adjustment.
* Walt Whitman has often been quoted in Hispanic writings and has been used to advance the spirit of democracy, and the spirit of imperialism.
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2019
Three charismatic leaders
Wednesday, October 30, 2019: Charismatic leaders in History. What were the keys to Hitler’s, Churchill's, Mussolini's, FDR's successes? Keen perception of public moods? Oratory abilities? Character, firm ideology? Connecting to the people? How did they deploy their charisma? How could Napoleon manipulate the masses without TV ads? Why were people so perceptive to a madman in Germany? Recurring questions. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]
Wednesday, November 13, 2019 [Two weeks earlier because of Thanksgiving and another conflict] History of Farming in America. Examine the American Indians and their farming techniques, the early colonists and the skills they brought from their home countries; the food discoveries in the New World; Tobacco and Cotton and slavery; Farming and the Dust Bowl; Government and Agriculture; Modern Agribusiness. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]
NO MEETING IN DECEMBER
Wednesday, January 29, 2020. American Foreign Affairs after the Cold War. In the 1990s, America’s global primacy… The Cold War had ended with Washington and its allies triumphant; democracy and free markets were spreading like never before. Washington faced no near-term rivals for global power and influence.. the defining feature of international politics was American dominance. Then came conflict in former Yugoslavia, and more turmoil among former Soviet and American middle east allies. Rise of Terrorism. Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, ISIS. G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, Obama and Trump. Moscow and Beijing. Libya, Syria, Iran. [Proposed by Bill Owen and Rick Heuser].