Thursday, September 1, 2016

Indians—and many Mexicans—were here first

Only Louisiana Purchase & Alaska were larger additions
Earlier this week, a Library visitor talked about her “roots”: specifically about a grandmother who was Apache and Mexican. At this point her proud, and very non-Indian or Mexican looking husband chimed in: “Mexican from when Colorado was part of Mexico.”

I grew up, at least partially, in Southern California, close to the San Luis Rey Mission and the Pala Indian Reservation. In 2010, at my fiftieth high school, I learned that some of the Mexicans I went to school with were Indians, or of mixed Indian and Mexican ancestry. I learned too that at least one blonde, crew-cut haired white guy was an Indian too. When I said that I was surprised to learn that he was Indian, he said that he’d been told by family not to talk about it at the time, but that he had years of photos, regalia and artifacts, and the next time I was in California he’d show it all to me.

If you were Indian growing up in Southern California in the 1940s and 50s, it was easier to be Mexican—if you were dark skinned, or Anglo, if you could “pass” as white. My Monday visitor nodded her head as I told my story, although she did say that her grandmother quietly taught things about herbs and customs. She also said that the Mexican side of the family was firm about their pre-U.S. roots in what we now know as the American Southwest.

That’s a fascinating story. Her corner of Colorado was part of a large chunk of the United States ceded by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. The machinations that went into this huge land takeover—present-day U.S. states of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, about half of New Mexico, about a quarter of Colorado, and a small section of Wyoming—were complex, because the Republic of Texas and the US accession of Texas was also part of the mix.

Notice where Mexico is in 1846
US wanted border at 54-40
Britain wanted border at Columbia
So the Southwest joined the Northwestern US as areas where our government engaged with another government—Great Britain and the “joint occupancy” of the Oregon Country in the NW; the US and Mexico in the Southwest—in determining the future of land primarily and for millennia actually occupied by indigenous tribal people, Indians. And the two are tied together. President Polk, despite objections of more expansionist fellow Democrats, concluded the NW question with the 1846 Oregon
Treaty (at the 49th parallel, and not at “54 40 or fight”) as we were going to war with Mexico. The huge land accessions of Hidalgo—third largest in our history—came at war’s conclusion in 1848.

The Northwest is less complicated in one way; Indians were far and away the major occupants of the disputed lands in 1818, when Great Britain and the US agreed to joint occupancy (for 10 years, which became almost 30) and, in a sense threw the matter of ultimate jurisdiction into a race for white settlement.

The Indians were of course the earlier inhabitants of the Southwest as well, but Europeans, primarily of Spanish descent, were well into their takeover of the region in the 1840s. Mexicans—Mestizo descendants of Europeans and Indians—were the major occupants of the territory at cession in 1840. There were still Indian tribal people of course, and Indian raids on border settlements were part of the treaty talks—again another story!

I could find no firm population numbers, but did learn that the populations of California and Texas were small while New Mexico was a robust 40,000 in the 1820s. And I saw one estimate of 80,000 for the newly acquired territory in 1848, and a claim that 90 percent of them had chosen to stay in the new United States rather than relocate to what was left of Mexico. Throw in additional lands in New Mexico and Arizona gained peaceably through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, and there must have been close to 100,000 Mexicans in the newly configured US on the eve of our Civil War.

Fast forward to now, and to intermarriages with Bracero workers who were recruited to the US during WW II, and others who came through various legal immigrant worker programs, and there are many Mexicans—millions certainly—who were “here” before most of the rest of us. (Most African-Americans too can claim older US roots, but that is a different story.)

Which makes ironic most nativist rants about sealing borders. This might be the bigger story: moving borders, as described in accompanying maps, did as much to determine the current makeup of the United States as has the long history of immigration legislation, legislation that has alternately encouraged and discouraged immigrants by country of origin, color and race with the economic needs and the political sentiments of the day.

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